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Primary education

“We see the child as the agent of change”

by Nicholas Negroponte
Information technology offers a host of opportunities to all people with access. One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is a non-profit organisation that wants to bridge the digital divide. Founder and chairman Nicholas Negroponte elaborates on the means and ends of his work in an interview with Hans Dembowski. [ Interview with Nicholas Negroponte ]

The aspiration of your initiative is spelled out in its name: One Laptop per Child. We're still far away from that mark. Have your efforts been in vain?
Uruguay has done one laptop per child for the entire nation. That is 450,000 children, six to 12 years old. The last 50,000 are getting their laptops this month. Peru and Rwanda are following this lead and will do the same within three years. In their cases, that is 2.2 million children each. So far, OLPC has distributed about 1 million laptops, using 19 languages in 31 countries, including the likes of Haiti, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Mongolia and Cambodia. That feels pretty good to me and hardly “in vain”. What is even more important, however, is that the concept of a low-cost laptop was dismissed or ridiculed when OLPC started three and a half years ago. Nonetheless, OLPC’s XO Laptop gave birth to a new category of laptop, the so-called netbook. That category will account for as much as 30 % of the world production this year. That is a lot of change in three and a half years.

Who or what is standing in the way of brid­ging the digital divide?
On occasion, commercial interests have stood in the way. Most often these have been proxy wars between Intel and AMD or between Microsoft and Open Source. However, nobody has an interest in keeping the digital divide, and the real issue is money. It is expensive to get started, because there is a lot of catching up to do. At very least, you have to reach all children up to sixth grade, but its preferable to do even more classes at once.

Who bears the responsibility for making change come about: private-sector leaders, governments in developing countries or donor nations and their agencies?
Heads of state, for their own nation. The best timing is to start the programme at the beginning of his or her only or last term. It needs to be the top leader of the government. One reason is that ministers need to feel secure, not be scared of such a bold investment decision. The private sector, on the other hand, is not well suited, because kids are a mission not a market. OLPC is like sidewalks, clean air or basic health. These are civic and civil duties. I think donor agencies should consider giving laptops, not money. In the USA, I am urging the Obama administration to do this in Afghanistan.

How do computers fit into primary education in developing countries, particularly in rural areas, where the main challenge is that schools are not adapted to local cultures, lifestyles and needs? Doesn't the introduction of computers compound those problems?
The concept of "school" as an age-segregated, sequential curriculum based purely on discipline rather than on passion is indeed a very stultifying model, not well suited to many needs. That is not our approach. OLPC sees the child as the agent of change. There is an inversion of usual thought about learning, one that draws on the innate ability of children to learn. When people ask me “how will we teach the teachers to teach the children how to use the laptops” I wonder what planet they are from. Children are clever. Given the opportunity, they’ll find ways to use computers, and computer use will train basic skills like literacy, for instance.

But the children need some instructions first.
We do not focus on computer literacy, that is a by-product of the fluency children will gain through use of the laptop for learning. You’d be wrong to consider computer literacy another tough item on the school agenda. Laptops allow children to pursue and develop budding interests. Almost everywhere kids get our laptops, school attendance increases dramatically. Children begin to explore their own potential. When children have access to this type of tool they get engaged in their own education. They learn, share, create, and collaborate. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future. Learning is our main goal.

Children – especially young children – need the opportunity to learn far more than Word, Excel and Powerpoint. Of course, picking up these skills, having grown up with a laptop, will be readily accomplished.

Where, according to you, have such issues been resolved especially well?
It has worked especially well in Peru, in very remote villages, where the children have no electricity at school or at home. The setting is very poor and simple. They do not even speak Spanish. There are no preconceptions about learning, so kids teach their parents how to read and write, for example.

You have just been to Africa. What impressed you most?
We have just moved our entire education group to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. We’ll serve all of Africa and the Middle East from there. I have been to Africa often enough to know how little I know, how different each part is, and never to be surprised by the extremes of poverty.